Monday, December 29, 2008

I needed a better boat, not an anchor, not a safe harbor

Twenty years ago I had my last drink of alcohol -- Hopefully, for good. It is still a bit of a mystery how I got here, in this sober world – how I have been able to seek and find help when so many do not or cannot, even if they want it. What I know for sure is that my life had become full of fear- terror, really, and liquor was my medicine, my life, my comfort, my curse, and so much more. It took me to places I never thought I would go -- Hazy nauseous experiences. Bold and spontaneous actions. Giving up of all illusion of control, being a victim, a willing victim, of circumstances and life and people -- especially of men.

Once during those years of promiscuity and desperation, years of of continually believing I was falling in love, that I was going to find the one man to save me – or maybe I was going save him - a man said to me “you need an anchor”. At the time I really didn’t think much of that, but it stuck in my head.

For years I had nightmares about water. Small waves, tidal waves, flowing water, calm water, and even ice – I was afraid of it all, in my dreams. Therefore it is interesting to me that, years later, I heard a boat analogy to describe addiction. The simple version is this: those who have a genetic predisposition to addiction start out life with a smaller boat, and it tosses them upon the big and powerful ocean. The experiences life throws them can make it even harder to stay afloat, and to navigate. If one is not an addict (or without other illness) the boat they come into the world with is larger, or built better, and they have better control over the journey (even when the oceans get rough).

In real life I loved water and loved to swim, in spite of my brother’s drowning. They say in dreams water represents the spiritual, or one’s emotional life. Over my years of being sober the water gradually became less fearful to me; at times I could put my feet in and wade; later, I was able to swim. Now I have some of the old dreams but much more of the new.

It was fear that got me sober, really. Fear that my life would never be what I expected it to be, fear that I was going to be a victim, again, of rape or worse, fear that while I wasn’t sure I wanted to live I was not ready to die either. I saw myself going down the road of losing what little self I had completely; I was tired of working, paying rent, trying to keep up the appearance of being “normal. I was drinking and smoking pot alone at night in my studio apartment with the burglar gate locked to keep people out, having been broken into. I was effectively locking myself in my own prison.

When I began my recovery, the neighborhood I lived in was not good; there were many liquor stores (convenient for me, since I didn’t have to go to the same store every day - didn't want the store owners thinking I had a problem) and there were frequent drug deals and gunshots in the area. I had a job that I loved, and I was still able to go to parties with my coworkers and no one thought it odd that I would pass out on the floor and get up in the morning and get on the bus to go home. They were those kinds of parties. Outside of that, though, I didn’t like going out anymore. Having been a victim of rape more than once, and in general not wanting to be bothered with strangers in bars, I drank at home. I was less into to the parties as well, because of the shame I felt about my behavior (often raging), the passing out, blacking out, and of course at times throwing up. I was thirty years old and in despair.

I’d fallen in love once again, or so I thought. This time the man was much younger than me, and he was sweet and kind to me. In spite of trying to cut down on drinking, I caused him embarrassment and treated him badly. I had to give him up -- but I pined away, wishing I was not such a mess.

Drinking at home alone, smoking pot, listening to sad songs, and watching old movies, and crying. These were my common pastimes. I knew there was something wrong with me but could not figure out what (even though I had called AA some years before, and had thought and even wrote that I might have a problem with the booze). Like depression, alcoholism/addiction is a disease that tells you don’t have a disease. Because it wants to destroy you.

My immune system was shot, I suppose, because I kept getting some bad sinus infections. When I‘d go to the doctor he would give me a shot of antibiotics before sending me home with more in pill form. One day I mentioned to the doctor that I thought I had some emotional problems, and I needed him to refer me to counseling. I don’t know why but he asked about my drinking, and I answered honestly. At that time my tolerance had changed; whereas for most of my drinking years I was able to consume large amounts of alcohol, but now I was able to feel drunk on two or three drinks. Not drunk in the wild and crazy sense but it simply felt normal. The marijuana also made me feel normal, and I smoked it daily for about ten years. I would keep a bowl next to my bed and smoke first thing, when I work up. I told the doctor that it was starting to scare me, because I was worried that if I were not able to get pot that I would drink in the morning -- and all day long. The doctor told me “You’re an alcoholic, call AA”. And he even told me a little about it, that there are open and closed meetings, that I don’t have to say anything if I don’t want to, and some other tips. I wonder, now, how he had such detailed knowledge.

My first thought was, “fuck you”. I went back to my usual way of living and drinking. But there came time for a trip with my job – I was working with Greenpeace and the toxics campaign was in Kentucky to bring attention to a highly polluted area. We were planning a large march and I stayed at the campgrounds helping out, making signs mostly. Though I wasn't at the office I tried to wait until noon each day to start drinking (there was plenty of beer everywhere). I remember waiting for noon, craving it. Almost everyone drank at least some, but I had been throwing up and doing other embarssing things. I had a big chunk of hash and I gave most of it away to someone while drunk; the next day I wanted it back.

The details aren’t as important as the feeling I had, which was growing and consuming me, that I was just going through the motions of living, that I was putting on an act, and not a very good one, of someone who had a life, who enjoyed life, who knew how to live life and take care of herself. In reality I was drawn to that other part of me, the dark part, that was getting stronger. I found the idea of living in alleys and selling myself for booze and money, attractive. I was always drawn to the underworld, I was always a risk taker and often enjoyed living on the edge, but this was going to take me further down – to a place from which there would be no return. And I literally could visulize it, and the sick part of me longed to embrace it. In my mind, I could see a crossroad.

Back in Chicago the drinking and crying continued. I went back to the doctor. He again told me I was an alcoholic and told me to go home and call AA. And this time I did. A woman called me back, and I agreed to go to a meeting. I was a little high from pot when I went to that first meeting with those two ladies, but I have not had a drink since. I was offended because while driving they were talking and gossiping and hardly paying me any attention; I thought they should respect the fact that this was a momentous occasion in my life. I think in retrospect, had they been very serious and attentive, it might have scared me off.

At the meeting people talked about being violent, going to jail, divorces, throwing up, blackouts, and shame. And they laughed about it all. They said “it’s the first drink that gets you drunk” -- I'd never even suspected such a thing! They said “when you drink, if you cannot predict the outcome, you’re an alcoholic”. And I knew that was me – because sometimes things were fun with no consequences, and sometimes I appeared calm, though I wasad twisted up on the inside. They said “this is the beginning of a while new life for you”, and I believed them. And it was.

Now, to say it has been all smooth sailing and wonderful would be false. For one thing I did not quit smoking marijuana for a year; there were months of being clean followed by getting high (also once took hallucinogenic mushrooms, the last thing was cough medicine with codeine - and I did not have a cough) I tapered off my daily pot smoking with the help of a therapist. I did start attending to the emotinoal issues, which were quite real. To say that I’ve gotten the life I always wanted would be false. To say that I’m happy, finally, would almost be true, however. The main thing is I have been, over the years, learning to be ok with myself.

It is hard not to go into a long dissertation about alcoholism; but what I do know is it's a mysterious and chronic disease that is always present. I know there is no cure. My dreams tell me so – in my dreams I sometimes drink, and I make excuses, I tell myself its ok to have just one, that no one will know, that it isn’t affecting my life. But in those dreams when I drink, or think about drinking – or smoking pot – I feel like I am a piece of garbage, not a human being at all but some kind of monster masquerading as human. They say if you drink you die. It’s true. Not physically but inside. Twenty years later I am still learning how to live. Happiness is not the point -- that much I know for sure. Having the things I want – a man, a house, a good car, vacations, a family – that is not the point. That much I also know for sure. These are things I have learned over years, and have spent years trying to accept. Recovery, for me, is about living a spiritual life. It comes from the inside, it’s about those sappy things like love, tolerance, forgiveness, and understanding – and learning to apply those things to myself as well as to others. It's about healing. It's about being able to give, at times, with no expectation of getting anything in return. For me, it’s not about religion; I like to say God is much too big for any one religion. I don’t always care for the term “God” (and often say “higher power” instead) but it’s convenient. I have not done everything you are “supposed to” in AA and I don’t believe it is necessarily the only way to stay sober – but that would be a topic for another time. But I will say that AA is one of the tools, the primary one, that I have used to get help.

I learned a long time ago that trying to live life doing the right things – what I consider the right things alters at times, but I have developed some core values – is more important than trying to be happy. And like Bill Wilson said, along the way there are “moments of real joy”. This is not a small thing.

So here it is December, and nineteen years from the last time I got high, twenty since I had alcohol, and I suppose one could say I found my anchor – something that keeps me grounded. However I would prefer to say I have built a better boat to travel in, or perhaps have learned to better navigate the waters.

A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for”
- John A Shedd

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The millennium and beyond

We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.
-Anais Nin

It was eight years ago in November when my family fell apart.

Dad was a distant man, for much of my childhood. He could be angry and critical at times, and at others he was fun and playful. He liked travel and games and adventures; he took our family camping and some of us skiing, to movies, and out to eat. He as generous with presents for birthdays & holidays. Most of the time, when he wasn’t at work he was watching TV or sleeping. Or he’d be in the basement with his books and puzzles, drinking beer. When we were younger he was in night school so we rarely saw him, but when he graduated college we were all there to see it. He was an electronic engineer, and very smart. After the death of my brother his behavior became warmer with his remaining three children – his three daughters, now in our twenties. He talked more, listened more, and was more present. After I sobered up, and my younger sister also, he even drank less and sometimes didn’t drink his beer when we were visiting.

When he retired, dad wanted to move to someplace warmer, and to get out of Chicago. He and my mother had continued to travel frequently so they were considering various places and finally settled upon Albuquerque New Mexico. My father’s reasoning; there were no earthquakes, floods, or hurricanes, or landslides (as opposed to California or Florida). Both my parents liked the mountains and the desert. They bought a new house, to be built in a gated community. In early summer of 2000 they moved to an apartment in Albuquerque to await the completion of the new home.

The last time I saw my father was on Father’s day; we had a small barbeque at my grandmother’s house and played one last game of Uno. Drinking and sober, it had been our favorite game to play together. When I said goodbye, I heard dad was giving his car to my brother in law. For 20 years I had been taking buses, trains and getting rides, having lost my license when I was a teenager. I had finally cleared up my record and was getting ready to take the driver’s test. I told him this - I had before but he’d forgotten - and he felt bad he wasn’t giving the car to me, and I said it’s ok. We hugged, and said goodbye as if it was any other day.

Over the summer, waiting for the house to be finished, my father would call from New Mexico. In Chicago he almost never called but now he was excited, he was enjoying having a cell phone for the first time, and calling from a mountain or some other interesting place. They saw a lot of rainbows. It was good to hear him so happy.

On November 5th – it was a Sunday – I was at a restaurant with my sister and her husband after an AA meeting. We were just about to eat our pancakes when my sister got a call from mom on her cell phone. I knew instantly. Dad had had a heart attack and had died at the hospital; he had told them to let him go. It was his second heart attack; he’d been smoking since he was eight years old and drinking almost as long. On the day they were moving into the new house dad insisted on helping the movers, which was when it happened.

Both my sisters flew to Albuquerque right away. Since I knew my mother was not alone I decided to wait; I was working with teenagers and did not want to just leave them. My supervisor thought I was crazy for going to work but I needed to. I was also hoping to find my nephew, who was living in a college town without a phone. My brother in law drove there and got him and I was able to fly to New Mexico with my nephew. On the way to the airport, I stopped to vote, since it was Election Day. I wanted to make sure to cast my ballot against George W. Bush.

That night, in my mother’s new house, she told us she had seen a rainbow over the mountains on her way back from the hospital. She thought it was a sign – that she was supposed to live there by herself and for the first time have the experience of being on her own. She had been married young, and had never been alone before.

So we stayed up late that night in a darkened room with very little furniture, lying on the floor watching the election returns until we realized Al Gore didn’t really win Florida, or maybe he did, they were not sure….

During those few days we were all together, there were some family difficulties, though the actual "funeral" - a viewing of the body - went quite well. The five of us gathered in a small room at the funeral home with the open casket. We spoke of some memories, told dad we loved him and said goodbye. We all held hands and said the Serenity prayer.
Later, my older sister called me a bitch, and I comforted my younger sister when mom upset her. This sister is in recovery also, and one night we went out to find an AA meeting but got very lost, driving through the unfamiliar city at night. At one point I remembered we still had Dad’s ashes in the trunk, having picked them up earlier in day. They were inside a plastic bag in a cardboard box. I mentioned this to my sister, laughing about driving around with Dad in the trunk (I liked that because he did so like to travel). I found it comforting in a strange way; my sister was not amused. It spooked her. Eventually we found a meeting and it was a warm and friendly place.

My elder sister and nephew left a few days later. Mom, my younger sister and I took a drive up to the Sandia Mountains to scatter Dad's ashes. This was Mom’s idea; I never actually knew why she wanted to do this but who was I to question my mother?

It was a grey and chilly day with snow lying in patches, and as we drove over winding roads we finally found a spot with a bit of a view that sloped downward, right off old Route 66. Here we found that ashes did not exactly scatter, but my mother manged to dump them on the hillside.

I have photo I took of my mother and sister standing there on the mountainside with the empty cardboard box, smiling as if on vacation. To me it epitomizes the dysfunction of our family.

Since that day our family has never been the same. There have been no get togethers, if one doesn't count my grandmother's funeral (which is the only time Mom has come back to Chicago). Communication has been sparse, and becomes more so as the years wear on. We have our separate lives, in separate places, and although my older sister is in the area, we rarely talk. Lacking the context of family as a unit, it doesn’t seem that we can. It has gradually dawned on me that my father was the glue that held us together. Never mind that he had moved across the county, if he had lived we would still be connecting, in our own way.
Eight years later I still cannot grasp how my reality has shifted to such an extent.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

An ending, a beginning

Strange to be no more of Earth,
To quite half learned habits.
To view roses and their kind
No more in human terms.
To be no more a babe in arms
That ever fear to drop you.
To leave the name you are known by like a child leaves
A broken toy.

Children who have gone do not require us.
Weaned, they need no mother’s breast.
Our joys and sorrows don’t concern them.
But we, for whom the mysteries are golden,
Still unsolved, our very sustenance –
Can we exist without them?
Grief is our spirit’s fodder.

- Rainer Marie Rilke
We all know life has its twists and turns, and unexpected events. My life has had so many – in the younger years – that to write about this part of it feels like I’m writing about a different person…

She had always wanted to be a mom.

Like most little girls growing up in the 60’s she assumed she would be a wife and mom, just like her mother. She had no way of knowing that loss and grief and addiction would take over so much of her life, which started out (to all appearances) in a normal middle class suburban home.

During school she was a well-behaved, quiet girl, In high school she found a group of friends, and involvement in what was to her a fantastical world. The darkened theatre, with it’s prominent stage, and the lights, the actors, the smell of freshly sawed wood, and the satisfaction of being a part of creating something behind the scenes. Add to this the silliness of a teenager, parties with lava lamps and incense, listening to Bread, Jethro Tull, and Jesus Christ Superstar (no drugs yet), walks in the park, swinging on swings beneath the Summer Tree with her best friend, singing and talking, and the feeling of learning to be independent from her parents. It was a fine time in her short life, for the most part, in spite of having major surgery, insecurities, and some dark thoughts.

When this time was over, life for Rose became a serious of misadventures and rebellion as she tried to find her own way, punctuated by increasing amounts of alcohol and the use of many types of drugs – marijuana and hallucinogens being in the forefront. She tried college, and various jobs, but was carried away by the events and connection she had with some younger adolescents. During the course of these experiences – driving around, getting high, and “partying” - she met Don. He was nineteen, lived on his own, with a roommate, in the apartment complex behind the high school, and primarily sold drugs for a living. One day Rose realized one day she was living there with him.

After months of taking acid, PCP, speed, mescaline, and other drugs -- along with a constant supply of alcohol and marijuana; after some episodes of violence and police searches; after losing her savings to a bad drug deal, Rose realized she was pregnant. This made her and Don very happy, and they took this as a sign they needed to change their ways. In fact they decided to change everything, and went to Wisconsin to live in the country and start anew. Neither had drivers’ licenses by then, they were driving a car with illegal plates, and had no real plan. But, oh, it was thrilling, driving so fast on those back roads!

In a short time they were broke, homeless and hungry. While exploring a small lake area the young couple met a man who was temporarily living at the campground, and he took them out for drinks. There was Rose, pregnant and hungry, drinking beer – she was close to passing out. Finally the man bought them some food. He let them stay in his tent over the weekend while he was gone, then introduced them to his girlfriend. This woman had a nice house and some small children; she let the couple stay with her while Don, who had found a construction job, went to work and Rose cleaned, cooked, and took care of the kids.

One day, riding in the back of a pickup truck on the way to visit someone’s farm, she saw graffiti written on the side of an old train car in large letters: TEENAGE WASTELAND. She was nineteen.

Not long after, the idea of having a life with Don and trying to survive seemed empty and wrong. She wanted to go home. She called her best friend who came and took her back to her Illinois suburb. But Rose’s parents didn’t want a baby in the house; at least one of them was against it, she did not know which one. They fought over the situation while she slept on the couch, since her bedroom had been given to her brother. Her mother found a place for her to go. It was a “home” for unwed pregnant ladies in the city, run by Catholic Charities. It was, in fact, in a building that used to be a convent.

Living with other pregnant young women was not easy. To cope, she still had a few drinks now and then, and smoked some pot when she got the chance. It seemed like she went through a hundred indescribable emotions daily. Everything was new and strange, being in the city, and once she had an episode of fear and disorientation that left her standing on the sidewalk while others walked around her. She saw the garbage, grey skies and brick walls, and was frozen in abhorrence of the time and place. Pregnancy, however, agreed with her physically since the morning sickness had passed, and she was healthy and strong. She was hired to work in an office at the catholic hospital affiliated with the “convent”.

The months went by in an odd sort of haze, in spite of the need for a decision -- to keep the baby or give it up for adoption. She wanted to be a mother very badly but she also knew she would be on her own, and possibly on welfare; although there was still communication with Don, she did not trust him to help raise a child. She would never know what the final decision would have been.

A week or so after acting as partner for another woman’s delivery, holding her friend’s hand while giving birth and then watching her hand the baby over for adoption, Rose felt some odd cramping. Earlier that day she had been out with her mother and had come very close to being hit by a bus, so when back in her room she smoked some pot she'd hidden. It was more than a month too early to go into labor, and the pains were not strong. However when they did not abate she went to her friend’s room for advice, and they called the doctor. He advised her to walk around and if it was false labor the cramps would go away. They did not go away. The two women took a taxi to the hospital, and in no time at all the birth was over, and the baby boy was taken away. Rose saw him twice – once when was first born and once in the incubator. He had red hair like his father. She and Don had decided if it was a boy he would be named Daniel Christopher – a long name for a tiny baby.
Because a lung had collapsed little Daniel was taken to the children’s hospital. It appeared that Rose had been only about six months along, rather than seven as she originally thought. Sometime during the next day she was told the other lung collapsed and she had to make a decision. Let him go, she said.

Her mother brought wine for them to drink -- the usual family response to any event. Later that evening they went downstairs to the cafeteria. The lights were dim, there were strange decorations hanging down and some people were wearing costumes. Rose felt like she was in some odd kind of half nightmare world. It was only then she realized it was Halloween.

After, there were more troubles: with people, with depression, pain involving a good deal of dental work, finding a job she could walk to (back at home in the suburb again), and a grief that defined her for many, many years. (Which she poured alcohol and drugs on top of, but did not numb it). Rose believed she was supposed to be a mother. Oh, there were other chances to have children, but none of them were the right time, or place, or with the right person. And underneath, always the fear – fear of hope, fear of loss.

It wasn’t until around the age of forty when I began to accept that it was OK not to have children, and that it didn’t mean I was a failure as a woman. Around that same time, having finally obtained a bachelor’s degree, I began working with teenagers. Inappropriate though some thought it was, I was able to put nearly all of my energy into being there for those kids for a number of years. I don’t regret it because I know I made a difference, and because of all I learned. They say everything happens for a reason; what they don’t tell you is it can take a long, long time to find out what those reasons are.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Beyond Forgiveness

"Forgiveness is the answer to the child's dream of a miracle by which what is broken is made whole again, what is soiled is again made clean."

- Dag Hammarskjold

Once upon a time I had a brother, he was my only brother, the youngest of four kids in the family. Jim. James. Jimmy. He was the long awaited only son, but by the time he came along my parents were tired, busy, and as they had always been, emotionally unavailable. Although I was the second eldest I looked after him quite bit. When I was younger my mother read stories to myself and my sister at night, later I read stories to him.

He was a legend from birth in our family because he was born in the car on the Kennedy expressway. My mother delivered him while my father was speeding to the hospital. Dad was in a panic; she was calm. It was her fourth delivery after all. She was on the evening news and few days later there was an article in both major newspapers, with a photo of all of us at home, Mom holding the new baby.

I like to tell people how he was in the newspapers when he was born and when he died, almost 21 years later.

It would be nice to say there was a good story to tell about his life, but in truth I learned more from his death.

The basics about him are; sometime in his mid teens he shot up like a weed, and was over 6 feet tall. He was good looking, sensitive, mischievous, and very intelligent. He loved other animals but kept parakeets as pets. I think he had a hard time in school, with rules and fitting in. He played electric guitar, a little. He started getting into music at a young age; Pink Floyd was his favorite, then David Bowie, but he had quite a varied record collection by the time he left this earth. I know, because I carted those albums around for years, and still have some of them.

He started drinking at the age of 12, and taking pills sometimes. I remember hearing he was falling asleep in school. You could say we started drinking and getting high around the same time, though not together. His Greek friend would steal Ouzo from his father & bring it over. Our older sister would bring him beer & he’d lower a bucket on a rope to her in the driveway and pull it up to his room. I had been away from home and he got my room when my parents didn’t think I was coming back. I came home for about a year to get myself together in order to move out again, and Jim’s room was the party room, where we would drink, smoke pot and listen to music. Then when I moved out on my own, several years and numerous apartments later he came to the city and stayed with me for a while. His first real girlfriend was a friend of my boyfriend at the time. Perhaps a year later, after going back and forth from suburb to city he got himself a room at a hotel that was an “el” ride from my newest home. We spent a lot of time together, talking and talking – about war, life, nature, what it all means. I got him to listen to Bruce Springsteen with me, and he started to appreciate the lyrics. We had both decided we wanted to listen to the blues more, and went to the Blues Fest together; he held my hand in the crowd. He was my best friend.

July 21 1985. He was at my apartment and I was getting ready for a date with a new guy. We were going to a street fair right near Jim’s hotel I kept asking him to meet me there. He had his own plans though. He was going to go to a pier on Lake Michigan he and he his friend had discovered. At night people hung out at the very end of the pier around a garbage can fire; they would climb to the top of the narrow steel tower to drink and get high. So I went to the street festival and all I could think about was where my brother was and why he wasn’t there. On stage the band was playing the blues, it was Muddy Waters Jr. I kept thinking I have to tell him, he missed it. And I kept looking and looking for him.

Next morning I got a call from my mother. With no preliminaries, she said “Jim’s dead”. I said “no”. My parents had already identified the body. It had washed up on the rocks. I then had to call both of my sisters to tell them the news. My younger sister was living in St. Louis. I had visited her only a few weeks prior, for the 4th of July, and I brought back some fireworks for Jim. Being a typical delinquent in many ways, he liked to light them and throw firecrackers in front of people. I specifically told him not to do that when I gave them to him.

But that was exactly what he did that night. He and his friend Alex, who survived and has told me the only account of the incident I know, were up on the tower drinking cheap wine and smoking pot. And lighting firecrackers, and throwing them down at the people on the pier below. There was one guy in particular who became enraged. He and some friends climbed the tower to beat Alex and my brother up. There was only one way to get away and that was to jump into the lake. Alex said he was yelling at Jim to jump and my brother was saying he didn’t have his glasses; I guess they had been knocked off his face. Alex then jumped into the lake and made it to the beach I don’t recall how he got home but he did not wait to see what happened to my brother.

Alex had jumped into the shallower side of the pier, but my brother was found on the other side, the deep side. We do not know if he eventually jumped, if he fell, or was pushed in. The autopsy showed numerous bruises, including heel marks on his face. My older sister and I didn’t see the autopsy until after the funeral; it explained the thick makeup on his face and why he was almost unrecognizable in the casket. We also visited the detectives and cleaned out Jim’s room at the hotel. The police said they had questioned people who were on the pier that night and no one really knew what happened or were not telling. They did know that the leader of the guys who attacked my brother was a white guy with a lot of tattoos named George. He was familiar to the police, but they had not been able to find him.

My sister picked me up that day we got the news, to take us both to our parents’ house to wait for our younger sister to arrive from St. Louis. Once there, all I remember of that day, of the next few days, was sitting in the dark smoking joints and cigarettes, and drinking. That first night I was sitting in the driveway on lawn chairs with my father. The man who rarely showed any emotion was drunk and yelled and cried and regretted he had been in conflict with his only son. Later, as we sat there drinking Dad said he was worried about me, because I had been closer to Jim than anybody. I said, oh don’t worry about me, I’m happy for him. He got out of this life. I just wish it had been me.

Several years later I had gotten into recovery and was sober for about three years when I met my friend Linda. By this time I had been living by the lake -- very close to that pier. I liked the neighborhood and wanted to be near where my brother had last been alive. I thought maybe I would be closer to his spirit.

One summer night Linda and I were sitting on the beach and, with the pier in our sight, I told her about my brother’s death. When I got to the part about the guy George with the tattoos she said, “I know him”. Not that long ago she used to party with this guy and some of his friends and she knew that they went out on the pier often to hang out, and light a fire in the garbage can. A blond guy with tattoos. She said he was a Vietnam Veteran and he was drug addict. She said she remembered in the summer of '85 he did disappear, left the state for a good long time, maybe a year. She said he was back in the Chicago area, she’d heard, and thought she knew where to find him.

I really only thought about finding him for a moment. What would be the point? This was what I thought, but really it was more of sense, a feeling: Jim was a peaceful kind of guy, in spite of the mischievousness; he’d only been in one fight that I knew of. He and I had talked about the futility of war, especially Vietnam. Then there was George, a Vietnam vet. Jim, with that side of him that liked to push the edge threw down firecrackers, and George reacted, most likely because of post traumatic stress. So if you look at the three of us, I was an alcoholic and addict, my brother I believe was also, and George was a addict. We were the same. Any one of us could have been the other, given the circumstances. Had I been to war and was addicted and someone threw firecrackers I would have been enraged. George could have been he one in recovery. George could have been the one throwing down firecrackers; Jim could have been the person who had been in Vietnam. There have been times in my life, and this was the first, when a feeling has swept over me and, like a fresh breeze, blown away any resentment or anger I might have had. What I have been left with is sweet, clean air.

There was no need to find George, to try to make sure “justice” was done. I know, without a doubt, that he was living in his own hell, not that I wished that on him. My foremost feeling was that, given he was living nearby, perhaps someday he would get sober and I would meet him in an AA meeting. And what I felt, really, about the whole situation was beyond forgiveness – it was, I think, Love.

So there the saga ended and yet it has never ended. I heave never seen nor heard anything about George since that day. Linda did not talk to her old friends anymore. But Jim, well, he’s with me all the time. In fact many days I believe I am living life for the both of us – as best I can. In the beginning I had many dreams about my brother, some were scary, and he was bloated and covered with seaweed. Another type was a recurring dream where he was walking along silently beside me in a field of grass stretching out to infinity on his side – on the right. I was on the left, on the edge of a cliff, below me was a rushing river with a forest on the other side, and there were animals frolicking in water and woods. Jim was speaking, trying to tell me something, but I could not hear his voice.

One day, a few years later, I realized I had not had the dream in months, not since I had stopped drinking. I credited that with helping me to get sober; to choose life. This was what he was trying to tell me. I had gone from wanting to die in place of my brother, to wanting to die because he was gone, and acting in self-destructive ways, to finding something to live for – that had to be some force greater than me. The dreams I still have occasionally – this summer I had them more often, perhaps because I had been grieving - are the best. In them, my brother is alive, and we are talking and hanging out, and it’s as if he has just been away for a while and now he’s back. As if he was never gone.

As for George, if you are out there – I forgive you, and I know he does too.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The DNC, Illinois, and Group Empathy; a theory

A caveat: I am a supporter of Barack Obama. However the following is meant to be more in the nature of a sociological essay than a political one. It is primarily about my unique (I think) point of view of the situation, and due to my current (and probably unhealthy) obsession with everything election related. Comments are welcome.
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Approximately nine years ago I had the good fortune to hear Barack Obama give a talk at a small youth conference I attended when I had just started counseling teenagers. He was a state senator then, and though I didn’t pay much attention to what his role was I did notice that the way he was introduced was as if he were someone very special. He spoke about youth – particularly inner city youth, as was appropriate – with knowledge and empathy. Not knowing his background I assumed he had been raised on the South Side of Chicago. One of the things that really stuck with me was how he discussed the (false) viewpoint that African American boys don’t read, and that it’s not considered cool by their peers to be a reader. This was one of those vague concepts I think I knew but had never heard anyone speak out loud.

I was so impressed by this thin, well spoken black man that I wrote down his name on the program (it was not listed). Years later, when he became U.S. Senator and gave that now famous speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, I actually looked for and found that program to confirm that he was indeed the person I had heard speak that day.

Hearing him talk about changing the 'us vs. them’ mentality, I thought to myself if he ever ran for president I would support him. The buzz on all the local news stations was that “everyone” said he would be president one day. That day is almost here – if he wins, that is. I never expected him to run so soon and I was torn, at first, because I did want to support Hillary, but the message of conciliation quickly won me over.

My one experience volunteering for the campaign was wonderful. I went to Gary, Indiana to help out on primary day. There were so many volunteers I had little to do, but just being there around the diverse group of supporters, including a retired life-long steel mill worker and Republican (a white man), was invigorating. Obama lost Indiana, but by a lesser margin than anticipated by the polls – in large part due to volunteers helping supporters in the Gary area get out and vote. Few thought he would win the state, though the hope was great. It was, for lack of a better term, an experience in group optimism.

This brings me to my most recent experience with the campaign, which to me occurred completely through my television and internet connections (a virtual experience). This was the most recent Democratic National Convention, starting with the candidate’s wife -a strong woman if ever there was one - and ending with a stadium full of supporters who were just as excited as I was. The glimpse I had of Mayor Daley in rolled up sleeves, with his hair in disarray, bouncing around, was one I will not soon forget!

What sort of phenomenon do we have here? Brainwashing? A cult? These are some of the accusations I’ve seen by critics. Obamaniacs, some call us. Lately some say we think he is the messiah. I don’t know, they could be right, I could have been brainwashed and am in denial. But I have a different idea, perhaps just as wacky, but everyone has the right to their opinion. I call it group empathy.

Just to clarify, the definition(s) of empathy:

- The intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
- Identification with and understanding of another's situation, feelings, and motives. (American Heritage Dictionary).

I did a little reading about group dynamics – very little, actually. Just enough to be able to say there are various theories about group behavior. One believes a group will follow a charismatic leader, others believe that groups take on a personality of their own, yet others say that it is the members in the group that reinforce each other. In any case, it does appear true that the phenomenon of group belief and behavior can be for negative or positive reasons/purposes. In this candidate’s situation, obviously, I choose to believe that it is for the good.

On the one hand, in his critics’ minds, you have Obama the elitist and out of touch candidate, on the other you have the community organizer who doesn’t have leadership experience. I would say neither is true. My belief is that Barack is like me and millions of ‘ordinary’ people who attempt understand others, to find what is common and similar in others, rather than to focus on our differences.

For example, some may think that since Barack didn’t come from the South side, didn’t grow up with the same disadvantages that many poor African Americans did, that he can’t understand them. He doesn’t really know what it’s been like for them. I disagree, and, using me as an example, here is why: I grew up a as middle class suburban white girl, someone with no idea what it was like to be poor, a minority, or involved with or witness to violence on a regular basis. Yet I immersed myself in urban youth culture for more than five years, and I can attest to having an understanding of these kids -- because I put in the time and effort. I watched, listened, asked questions, and was present for, or near, numerous disturbing events that they became involved in. I know enough to say that I know.

Empathy is also, in part, the ability to put aside one’s ego and personal beliefs, at least while in the service of the other person(s). I would never claim to completely understand someone who has walked in different shoes. However complete understanding is not required for empathy, for “intellectual identification”. All of us – all human beings – are capable of feeling the same feelings. Almost everyone knows what it’s like, for example, to feel angry over having been unfairly treated – regardless of the reaons.

I say all the above to say this: I think what we witnessed at the DNC was an ideal example of what I call group empathy. Because the candidate attracts people who identify with him, who identify with his call to service, to his vision of working together in spite of differences, having had some experiences in these areas ourselves. We identify with him because he identifies with many of us; we believe he is authentic because he has put in the time and effort to understand people. Also, with his example (which meshes with many supporters’ values) of taking the high road, not bashing his opponents and sticking to his beliefs I believe others were also able to take the high road.

Had Barack been saying things for example, similar to what John McCain says about him, regarding Hillary (had he insulted her) would she have wanted to stand up at the convention and not only support him but ask her supporters to support him? Would she really have placed the unity of the party first, without his example? Had Barack reacted to Bill Clinton’s comments, would Mr. Clinton have gotten up on that stage and said what he said -- to the point of saying Obama will make a good president? I doubt they would have been able to put aside their egos that much – it’s only human nature. (I realize that people in Barack’s CAMP said things about them, but the man himself did not).

It’s the golden rule. It’s Karma, it’s what goes around comes around. No wants to be shown up as being petty and a sore loser when the winner has always been gracious. They cannot complain that he said this and such about them, because he did not. He didn’t cheat them, lie to them, or manipulate them in any way. In fact he lauded Hillary and is helping pay her debts. Perhaps it’s safer in the long run to be cynical. But I did not see resentment in Bill and Hillary’s eyes. Perhaps a bit of envy or nostalgia on Bill’s part, but at that time their anger appeared to be subdued. I saw Bill Clinton’s face, when Barack acknowledged him, saying he was a president who cared about people. He looked – humbled.

To add to all the good feelings, there was the Illinois contingent at the convention -- hugging each other!! I don’t know if this was shown on national news but a description of what happened is here. The short version is that Jesse Jackson, Jr., gave a speech about reconciliation and proceeded to hug some people who were his political enemies (then Mayor Daley hugged him), then insisted that our governor and the speaker of the house hug and make up – these two who had not spoken in years!

I am not so na├»ve to think everyone will all get along back in Springfield, because of a hug, but for that moment they allowed their common humanity to come to the forefront, due, I believe, to the example and the atmosphere of the people in the campaign. What I do believe is this is not brainwashing, that a cult would emphasize an “other”, people who are somehow different, as opposed to trying to bring people together. Empathy is inclusive.

The news had almost nothing negative to say about the DNC, except to comment that it wouldn’t last, or that they still have to deal witch the McCain camp. Well, I don’t have cable, so I mention only what I saw. And what I saw, and felt, was empathy.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Operation and the Quest for Truth: the Beginning

The universe is like a safe to which there is a combination. But the combination is locked up in the safe.

~Peter De Vries, Let Me Count the Ways, 1965

I have been a seeker all my life; seeking God, the truth, understanding of myself, others, and answers to almost anything else. Once I had heard the 1970's adage : “Question Everything” it settled into my soul and remained there.

That was a little later though; it hardly seemed like I had any thoughts of my own until late adolescence -- aside from fears, fantasies, and daydreams. For the most part I did what I was told and what was expected of me. I think, now, that I was somewhat depressed even then. As a teenager I always had a sense, in the back of my mind, that I was going to die young. Thus, when it was finally determined that I needed major surgery, my shadowy thoughts were more or less validated. I had scoliosis, a sideways curvature of the spine. Left untreated the deformity would eventually become worse, to the point where the rib cage would be compressed and breathing difficult, perhaps one day impossible.

For several years I knew something was wrong with me, but when I tried to tell my mother she dismissed the notion. One day she finally noticed I was crooked and I began going to doctors. My mother: this was the same woman who would get angry with me for losing so many pairs of glasses - which I had to wear from second grade onward (once I saved up lunch money for months to get a new pair, so she wouldn’t know I had my lost my glasses yet again). I had been reluctant to cause my parents any more problems but once the operation was scheduled Mom was there, every day.

I was in the hospital for almost a month, and in a body cast for nine months - the cast was changed every three months – so that the fusion of my spine could heal. I took this all in stride; I suppose I was glad for the attention, because my mother was always around and my father was the one who drove me to the doctor’s visits. My grandmother called me a “little trooper”. I don’t recall feeling much in the way of physical pain or discomfort, with the exception of an allergy to the bandages.

It may seem odd but I look back on what could have been one of the most difficult times of my life with fondness. Because of my situation I was noticed at home and received some sympathy, although once the next school year started (my junior year) I walked a lot and did almost everything I used to do.

Back to ‘normal’ life after the cast was removed: I had a curvy figure, a new haircut and new clothes and I began to have some experiences with boys. I continued my involvement as a member of the crew for theatre: helping build the sets, running the spotlight and anything I could get involved in (except being on stage).

When did I begin to question everything? I think a few things did enter my mind after the operation but it wasn't until after high school and the beginning of a love/hate relationship with alcohol and drugs that my search for truth really began. I have written elsewhere about this and how I became involved with juvenile delinquents the first time around. My rebellion against authority began in earnest when I tried to think for myself. It was adventurous but not very pretty.

Everyone's life is a fairy tale written by the fingers of God

- Hans Christian Andersen

When I was a child, I had light blonde hair, and my mother called me her “blond princess”. I never felt like a princess though, I had freckles and prominent front teeth for which there was always the threat of braces, and I was the middle sister of three girls –Still, as young girls do, especially those like me who loved to disappear into books, I dreamt of being Rapunzel or Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty one day. I believed in happy endings with no clue of the beginning or the journey ahead.

So when I graduated high school with no real direction in my life I began to drink, use, drugs, and to think about why I always followed the rules or did whatever people told me to do. I began my wild drunken exploring, acid, discovery, questioning years. I also began years of going to dentists, having teeth pulled, root canals, crowns and bridges installed - this has continued until this day. You could build a city with all the effort and money spent on my smile.

The freckles have faded, blond hair has long darkened – now with silver strands, the eyesight has worsened, and the back problems have also. As I wrote about myself not long ago: “There was no prince charming, and she was no longer the blond princess. Her hair had turned to brown, and princesses don’t have crooked spines, root canals, or wear glasses.”

And yet God, or whatever greater power that exists in the universe, is not, I believe, entirely random. This power has indeed created some tales for me to tell. I have to supply the words, and some interpretation.

Will there be a happy ending? Each episode, so far, has had something resembling happy, or at least "OK". I have survived, even thrived. Really, to me it’s been more like a soap opera than a fairy tale. And as such I continue to question the answers I have found – and they always lead to more questions.

Friday, August 8, 2008


God gave us memory that we might have roses in December

Recently, I was made aware of this quotation for the second time in my life. By the same person. I had forgotten it. I have forgotten many things from my youth; often what I do recall are the small details and nuances of my life…

………. The orange-brown carpet in our house, worn and dirty in certain areas; the chill of the basement floor, the cool sensation of grass under bare feet, the smell of clover, making clover chains, watching ants in the ground march into their tiny craters of dirt. Living in a young suburb, there was nature abundant, including a dirt road that led to adventures of the imagination. There were wild roses in the summer, violets covering the wooded floor; in the tall fields were black eyed Susan’s, Queen Anne’s lace, tiger lilies…

………I remember playing by myself with little dolls, blocks, cars, and creating stories in my mind. I recall crossing the soybean field – one row at a time - as a shortcut to school; breaking in the window downstairs if we forgot our keys, while Mom was still at work. I remember the smell of mothballs at grandma’s house, and the long staircases; the colors and taste of homemade Christmas cookies, scent of pine from the tree; the crisp air of the first cold snap and bright stars in the vast December night sky.

These are elements of my childhood, imprinted in my being. There are other elements, other memories, but most of my interactions with people are blurred -- this in spite of my two sisters, little brother, and family vacations full of new experiences and sensations. Of those trips, the event I recall the most vividly is a walk in a pine forest, the feeling of warm sunshine filtering through, the soft blanket of brown needles underfoot, and a light summer breeze. I had the sense that I was by myself but most definitely not alone – it was pure magic. To this day, I cannot smell pine without feeling a slight twinge of recall, that, coincidentally or not, is the same as the scent of a Christmas tree.

December is the nighttime of the year, the closing down, hibernation if you will, of much of nature. For me, it is a time for remembering and a time to prepare for and celebrate both old experiences -- and new beginnings.

While the childhood memories, like roses in summer, seem bright and colorful, not all my memories are pleasant; many are quite the opposite. Roses have thorns, as it has been pointed out often. I am not going to get into the philosophical reasons why something that represents love can also cause pain. Better minds than mine have tackled these subjects; I have my beliefs and some of them may come out in the course of telling my stories. For that is what I feel compelled to do. Many are quite thorny and have been painful to live through. I am also very aware that others have more dramatic stories; more tragic, painful, and more transcendent.

Yet I can only write what I know. And I know that there are valuable conclusions I have drawn, so far, from these painful episodes. A great deal of what I’ve learned, especially in more recent years, comes from experiences with other people and I will be telling some of their tales as well, where our narratives intersect.

One could argue that it is not good to dwell in the past. I would argue that our stories are all we have, the only valuable thing - certainly the most human thing – that we have to share. I do not wish to dwell in the past but I hope some of my memories may be of use to someone, maybe even inspire others to tell their stories.

I also hope to regain some more lost memories; connecting with my high school friend brought back events and qualities about me that I had no recall of. It has helped to bring that picture of myself and my youth a little more in focus. I think during that time of my life, adolesence, when I began to experience a new kind of freedom, I knew those experiences would never come again and they should be treasured. It is therefore ironic that I should forget the quote I liked so much (so much so that I gave my friend a bouquet of roses, she said) and other events during that time. What is even more peculiar is the source of that saying – J.M. Barrie, the author of “Peter Pan", subject of one of my favorite movies: “Finding Neverland”.

The story of a boy who did not want to grow up! While I cannot say I relate to that sentiment any longer, there was a time when I did not want to be a grown up, no, not at all. I knew it was a frightening world. I would have preferred to stay in that child’s world of little toys and big dreams, fantasy, color, sounds, sights, and smells; the comfort and safety of the small things, the magic in nature and in stories. Yes, I do believe a part of me is still in Neverland.

Thanks to Google, I know I’m not the first to use the Peter Pan metaphor, and certainly won’t be the last. Yet there’s a reason a good tale resonates with so many, for so long. It speaks to a truth. I hope my stories do also, and that the roses will balance out the thorns.